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Why we owe Pride to black transgender women who threw bricks at cops

Marsha Johnson

Black transgender women are murdered at alarming rates. They have a bleak life expectancy between 35 and 37 years old, according to Julian K. Glover, an African American Studies doctoral student at Northwestern University  and receive an average annual income of $10,000 — well below the poverty line. According to the Human Rights Campaign at the time of press, at least ten of them have been murdered already this year, and many more fear for their lives.

Black transgender women also deserve credit for the state of LGBTQ progress today.

Here’s a look at why we owe Pride month to them and how we can all be better allies in a dangerous landscape for black LGBTQ people.

What happened at Stonewall? Say her name: Marsha P. Johnson

The Stonewall riots —  an incident that became a rallying cry for the nascent gay rights movement — were demonstrations that followed a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, on June 28, 1969. 

At the time, New York refused to grant licenses to bars that served gays, which allowed police to enter Stonewall with a warrant. They arrested 13 people.

“The majority of people at Stonewall were either drag queens or gay men of color,” Titus Montalvo, a hairdresser and makeup artist who was 16 at the time, told USA TODAY’s Dalvin Brown.

Many in the LGBT community credit transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson for throwing the first brick or shot glass that sparked the riots, though Johnson said she didn’t arrive at the bar until rioting was underway. Nevertheless, her role is hailed.

 

Peppermint, a black transgender drag queen known from Season 9 of “Rupaul’s Drag Race,”  is optimistic that society is starting to recognize the folks who made Stonewall happen and the importance of black trans women, but it’s still a work in progress. 

“We were at a point where particularly the story of Stonewall was very whitewashed for so long, and now we’re going back and people are deliberately reviewing the stories of people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera,” a Latinx transgender pioneer, Peppermint told USA TODAY.

Glover says that dismissing the roles played by black and Latinx trans women during Stonewall presents an ongoing contradiction in American society. The political and cultural contributions of black and Latinx trans women are deeply relied on for the progression of the LGBTQ community, but that same community is often left fending for themselves when it comes to securing access to resources necessary to survive.

Molly Merryman, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at Kent State University, told USA TODAY that there’s a host of other people often erased from the conversation too, like butch lesbians and young homeless men.

LGBTQ rights have come a long way in the U.S. But the community still faces threats in the form of legalization, discrimination and even violence. Just the FAQs, USA TODAY

 

Black transgender women are being murdered

According to the HRC, there were at least 26 murders of transgender people in the U.S. in 2018. Most were black transgender women. 

Just this week, a 22-year-old man was arrested on a murder charge in the death of 26-year-old Chynal Lindsey, a transgender woman whose body was found in a Dallas lake on June 1.

Last week, a 33-year-old man was arrested on murder charges in the deaths of three other women in Dallas, including 23-year-old transgender woman Muhlaysia Booker last month.

 

 

“I’m afraid that one day there could be a victim and that victim could be me,” Karleigh Chardonnay Merlot, a transgender activist and operator at the suicide prevention organization, Trans Lifeline, told USA TODAY.

Peppermint notes that if people saw themselves in the victims, there would be more attention. 

“These murderers are committing these atrocities and then they’re getting away with it,” Peppermint said. “The public is not rallying behind these trans women the way that we rally behind other folks, and it’s really tough.”

Peppermint says we also have to pay attention to how black people are generally treated in this country, trans or not.

Black transgender women in particular face discrimination from both the LGBTQ community at large as well as the black community. Legacy civil rights organizations and those in the business world and academia among the African-American community are recognizing that black trans people are black people, Merlot says.

Representation in media has also helped elevate awareness of transgender people, from Olympian Caitlyn Jenner to author Janet Mock to FX’s drag ball drama “Pose.”

Amid the swath of crises the transgender community still faces, Merlot says that there’s still joy to be had.

“Most of us are living wonderful, beautiful lives,” she says. “They’d even be more wonderful and beautiful if people would just let us live our lives and quit trying to legislate against us.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 22 anti-trans bills have been introduced this year alone, including restricting health care access to laws that “prohibit certain gender dysphoria instruction in public schools.”

How we can be better allies

Peppermint says that we must work harder to uplift black transgender women not just during Pride, but all year long.

“When the potential murderers see that even our own community is not rallying behind us, what’s to stop them for killing us?” she asks. 

To be a transgender ally, you must be willing to speak up and get your hands dirty, advocates say.

“It’s easy to speak up at the Pride march,” Merlot says. “But are you willing to speak up in your meeting room at your job?”

 
 
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